What Makes Google (vs. Microsoft) tick?

What makes Google tick? Is it different from what gets the Softies going? Is Google just like Microsoft was, when the Redmond software company was comprised of 8,000 people (the current size of Google) vs. nearly 71,000 (the size of present-day Microsoft)?

"What is Google really like on the inside? How does it think about projects, products, and partnering? And is there a method to its madness regarding new product releases?"

Even though I'm a Microsoft, rather than a Google, watcher, the promise of this October 16 New York Software Industry Association (NYSIA) talk, entitled "The World According to Google," whet my appetite.

What makes Google tick? Is it different from what gets the Softies going? Is Google just like Microsoft was, when the Redmond software company was comprised of 8,000 people (the current size of Google) vs. nearly 71,000 (the size of present-day Microsoft)?

Alan Warren, Google Director of Engineering addressed these issues from Google's perspective at the NYSIA meet-up (which my ZDNet blogging colleague Donna Bogatin also attended). His remarks and answers to audience questions reminded me of the Microsoft of the early 1990s -- and not in a good way.

With 300 engineers, Google's New York office is the largest Google arm outside of the Mountain View headquarters, Warren said. The New York Google branch is working on more than 100 different projects, and was the part of Google that delivered Google Spreadsheets, Google Local, blog search, mobile search and Froogle, among other initiatives, according to Warren.

Google typically employs teams of three when launching a project, Warren said. Once a project reaches a certain size, the company subdivides it in a way that allows teams working on given components to be co-located, whenever possible. He described this structure as "mapping clearly to object-oriented software design," with "tighter coupling done with the right granularity."

Google has found "distributed development across different geographies isn't really very effective," Warren told the NYSIA crowd.

Google also has no preset way of developing software or managing the development process, Warren said. Some adhere to agile development principles. Some prefer quarterly prioritizations of features and functionality.

"Google doesn't have a dictum," Warren said. But "three months is a forever timeframe for Google," he added (which may or may not have been a dig at Microsoft's five-years-and-counting Vista development timeframe).

Warren described Google as being "engineering-centric," with more than half of its total number of employees performing non-management/non-administrative tasks. As such, it's tough to grow, he acknowledged. Google also takes the "flat organizational structure to an extreme," he said.

(I may be wrong, but I doubt even Mini-Microsoft would favor a completely hierarchy-free Microsoft)

"We manage as little as humanly possible," Warren said, although “how far we can scale this model remains to be seen."

Google also "doesn't feel constrained by convention," Warren boasted, in terms of the way it does IPOs, hiring, corporate structure, etc.

Warren bragged that Google has "the lowest ratio of testers to engineers" in the industry. "We can get away with that because we are building the code reviews in from the start," which "tends to make the code more robust than usual."

When asked by an audience member how Google approach to management (or seeming lack thereof) didn't devolve into a mere "cat herding" exercise, Warren said: "Google gets around cat herding by hiring really smart cats."

He noted that individuals with ideas for new development projects must first submit their idea to an internal mail list, where 200 of their peers provide constructive criticism before any coding takes place.

"We don't hire people who won't fit in and take criticism from their peers," Warren said. "And we don't let people go too long without regular project reviews."

Another audience member asked Warren whether Google was planning to license any technologies developed by other vendors.

"We haven't seen any technologies out there we'd like to license," Warren responded. "We'd prefer to hire (the developers) or buy their company," he said. After all, who wouldn't want to work for Google, he chuckled.

Bashing Microsoft and praising Google is fashionable these days. But I can't help but notice that if you switched the word "Microsoft" in for "Google" in most of Warren's aforementioned sound bites, the Redmond software maker would be a total laughing stock. Who needs to manage? Who needs to rigorously test code? We're above all that!

Microsoft has -- justifiably -- been called arrogant. But Google takes arrogance to a whole new level. Microsoft has stumbled and fallen and is now picking itself up to move on. You'd think Google might have learned from Microsoft's mistakes.

Based on Warren's talk last night, I'd say Google is going to be headed for a fall of its own. And perhaps sooner rather than later.


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